TIJUANA, Mexico – It's been nine days since Vilma Ruiz and her nine-year-old son were returned to Tijuana. She sits, alone, in a chair in a shelter migrants, her face so sad that it's contagious.
When she speaks, her words come out reluctantly and she makes no gestures. That's very different from her son, who smiles and runs all over the migrant shelter with the rest of the children there.
“I don't want to stay here. I feel bad. You come with the dream of reaching the United States, but it ends in nothing. So, I made the decision to leave,” Ruiz said, explaining that she can't bear the thought of waiting five months in the shelter for her first hearing before a U.S. immigration judge.
Her son interrupts. “I am going to hide here, mami. That kid is hitting me hard,” says the boy, who does not really understand why he and his mother are in Mexico.
Ruiz got tired of waiting and put her name on the list of Central Americans who want to be returned to their countries; in her case Honduras.
She and her son were detained at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center in Texas. They were then moved to California and say they were told they would be released to relatives in the United States while awaiting a ruling on her application for asylum. But when they arrived in San Diego, the plans changed.
Instead, they were returned to Mexico under the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), dubbed 'Remain in Mexico,' which requires immigrants to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their applications are processed. She says she was told she would have to wait there until their first U.S. immigration court hearing, set for January 14, 2020.
Now, like others caught in a similar situation in Mexico under the new migrant processing procedure, she has decided to give up her dream and head home. Shelter officials say the lists of migrants in Tijuana who are opting to return to their native countries has grown over the past two weeks. The lists have 25, 30 and even 50 names of people wanting to return to Guatemala, Honduras y El Salvador.
One of the reasons is the same one that led Vilma Ruiz to add her name to the list of returness: a wait of five to nine months for the first court hearing, or for the call to be allowed to cross the border and submit asylum applications before U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents.
Despite the long journey that brought them to the U.S. southern border, some have chosen to go home as soon as possible, asking relatives and friends for the bus fare.
Carmelo Vargas, who drives one of the buses that makes the two-and-a-half day southbound trip, said his company sent four or five buses to the border with Guatemala in the past month alone, carrying mostly Guatemalans and Hondurans.
Other immigrants have started to add their names to the lists kept by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a U.N. agency that on July 8 started arranging return buses and flights from Ciudad Juarez, financed by the U.S. government to help migrants waiting under MPP – estimated at more than 20,000 – to return home.
The first returning migrants left last week from Tijuana, transporting 12 Central Americans. The next may leave this week from the Ágape shelter, carrying Ruiz and 23 other migrants.
“In this case, it's the U.S. government financing us,” Christopher Gascon, IOM representative in Mexico, said in a phone interview. He said the voluntary program of assisted returns is not new and noted it was used last year when caravans of Central American migrants were trying to cross Mexico. “They thought it over and decided to return home. It was in Mexico City where we started to offer that option,” he said.
IOM says it helped repatriate 1,791 migrants between November 2018 and late July this year.
Although the MPP was first applied along the US border with Mexico in January and was upheld in May by a U.S. federal appeals court, it was not until July that the IOM expanded its programs for migrants returned to Mexico. It took that long, Gascon said, largely because “there wasn't a lot of clarity at the beginning about the status” of the migrants or the risks they might face back in their home countries.
IOM's web page says the agency has assisted with 208 voluntary returns by migrants in Mexico under the new protocol since July. Gascon said they traveled by bus or plane, “depending on what's available … In these days it is very difficult to find sufficient space aboard planes, and when people want to go back quickly, the easiest is buses.”
Another reason: fear of the US
The long wait for their first U.S. court appearance is not the only reason why a growing number of Central Americans are looking for ways to return to Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador.
“To be truthful, I was afraid,” said Ruiz, explaining that she does not want to appear before an immigration judge only to be held in one of the notorious CBP detention centers known as 'iceboxes' due to the notorious cold, cage-like conditions migrants are held in.
She said she signed the U.S. documents agreeing to be returned to Mexico without serious objections. She was afraid, because she had seen how several CBP agents in San Diego all but forced a woman to sign. They pushed the woman's arms forward when she resisted, and a female agent dug her nails into the woman's forearm to force her to open her hand and put her fingerprint on the document agreeing to return to the Mexican side of the border to await her turn.
That same story was told to Univision News by at least a dozen Central American immigrants who like Ruiz witnessed the scene. Others suffered it more personally.
Ileidy Díaz left Mexico because of the same fear. Two weeks ago she returned to Guatemala with her children, six and eight years old, as well as 13 other migrants. So did Angela -- whose name was changed to protect her identity – who left Friday for Honduras with her three children.
Ileidy said she was forced to sign. “My children were crying when they saw those aggressive men,” she said minutes before boarding her bus to Guatemala. “That's the fear that is making me return to my country. My husband, who is in the United States, told me we should try it again, but no; the children will be more traumatized.”
She said that when she asked CBP agents for clean underwear she was told she was not in a hotel, and when asked for drinking water for her children, not from the tap, she was told she was not in a restaurant.
“I had never been so humiliated or cried so much,” she said.
Ángela agrees with Ileidy. “My children suffered enough. They suffered hunger, thirst and cried when (CBP) agents mistreat people. This is creating a psychological problem for the children, so I want to go back, even if I have to eat only beans.”
Univision Noticias sent the CBP office in San Diego several emails requesting an interview about the complaints and the application of MPP, but the request was denied.
A policy of deterrence
Depending on the shelter, the percentage of immigrants who give up and decide to return home varies. At the Madre Asunta shelter, which currently houses about 100 women and children, spokesperson Salomé Lima said 20 percent have decided to return home because of the prolonged wait for court hearings. Others fled after they fell victim to criminal gangs. “They say, 'I thought it was going to be easier', and realized it was not. The wait is too long, and there's no certainty that I will get in.”
At the Embajadores de Jesús shelter, which houses an average of 250 immigrants, Pastor Gustavo Banda said that about 40 percent of the arrivals remain to wait for their court hearing, and the rest decide to return to their own countries.
And at Ágape, which shelters 230 migrants, 50 to 55 percent of all the Central Americans who arrive turn around and head for home, said Pastor Alberto Rivera.
Aside from the alleged mistreatment, Rivera said, the migrants are discouraged when they learn they won't be able to find legal employment because they lack proper work papers, their children could spend months without schooling and the difficulty in finding attorneys to represent them for free before U.S. immigration courts.
For Banda, the way in which Trump's policy is being applied has only one goal: “Discourage people from trying to stay in the United States. It's working for them very well.”